Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Dave Reitzes, Part 3

PSF: By not codified, do you mean that a piece the Quartet plays every night could go somewhere totally different one night?

No, no, by codified I mean you can't really teach in school what we do. There's not a system that you can teach in school.

PSF: There's also such an evolution in your music that by the time somebody codifies what you're doing, you might well be doing something else.

Yeah. Or dead.

PSF: Well, yeah. One of the things that people have trouble with about the so-called avant-garde is that it's not something you can break down and intellectualize. You can't put it on paper very well. You can't really notate it. If you can't do that, people kind of throw up their hands and go, "What is it?"

Right. And that's understandable. We live in a very academic society. I can understand how somebody is socialized to react that way. I'm going to go so far as to say it's incumbent upon a musician to really figure out a way to get across what they're about. You know, if they can't do that, they probably shouldn't be bitter that people don't get them. For instance, Monk had to create a whole mode of being to really get across to people what his music was about. People have to be comfortable approaching something and they have to really be handed a framework to see it in. So, in Monk's case, you have this iconoclastic pianist whose attitude is, 'Fuck the world, I do my own music.' He has a certain look. His name, even, is part of the marketing scheme, I mean, Thelonious Sphere Monk -- how can you think of a better name to fit his style of playing? It's all a piece: the way he walks, the way he looks, his name, his whole iconoclastic, existential piano playing that gives him the whole mode of being that he takes. It took years for him to get acclaim but he kind of stayed in his own world all those years. And he has problems too, personal problems, he's insane slightly. And all that feeds into the marketing image. And when you really look at it, it is in a sense easy to digest, even though his music wasn't easy to digest for people back then. When you look at the whole image, it's really easy to get the idea of this piano player, you know, if he looks a certain way. "The Mad Monk" and his crazy piano and his weird chords. It's all a piece, so I think it's easy to digest the image, because as a whole -- except for hardcore music listeners -- people don't buy music for the music. You know, you have to have a whole marketing image to present. And that's a perfect example, "The Mad Monk," that whole thing, is actually a perfect marketing image.

PSF: "The eccentric genius . . ."

Yeah, the "eccentric genius," the iconoclastic pianist, stayed in his own room for years with his own compositions until the world finally catches up to him. He dresses a certain way, a man of few words, you know. His name, like I said -- Thelonious Sphere Monk: there's not a more perfect name to fit his compositions than that name. The majority of people don't really buy music for the sound of it; they buy it for whatever is around it. Musicians have to really create an envelope or a way for people to feel comfortable approaching them. I mean, there's a saying that the hangers you hang clothes on are sometimes more important than the clothes that you hang on them. You're always looking for a deeper thing that ties everything together. Actually, what I'm referring to is that marketing image, if it really is all a piece and fits the personality of the person, and is part of their whole existential way of being or mode of living. Then it's not even really a gimmick; it really is an organic thing emanating out of the person. And it's not then even really a marketing thing because it's the person really finding a way to be who they are. And if their music is distinct then probably the way they are is going to be very distinct too. And you're going to find a place to breathe in the middle of the marketplace. Then it all comes down to communication because they're going to be really able to communicate who they are. Their music is going to be unique. And if their music is good then it's going to become the communication of who they are in the realm that they're exploring. It's interesting because on one level it's like a calculated marketing image; on another level they're dealing with something that's actually organic and part of a piece. You're always looking for something deeper that ties things together. That's what's going on in all this, in how maybe the music has evolved from the Sixties to now, and what we were talking about earlier. If all the sudden the rhythm section is really functioning -- because this is what happens on Critical Mass, one of my quartet albums, or in the Ware Quartet -- what you're really aiming for is that the integrity of what's holding the music together in the rhythm section, or in the very core of the pulse, where the music pulsates out of -- it has so much integrity that every extremity is really part of that core. And therefore, even if you hear it in the whole rhythm section, it really isn't that; it's everything really vibrating out of this really integral center. And therefore there's a fourth dimension holding everything together. It's really hard to look beneath the surface and see the origin of how it holds together, but it's holding together on such a deep level that there's many vectors for the listener -- if the listener wants to be creative -- there's many vectors for him to actually listen to the music from. Hopefully, in a quartet of mine, which is with Matt Maneri, the violinist, or in a David Ware Quartet, if you want to, you could just follow the piano. You could follow the piano in a section where I'm just accompanying, as not an accompaniment, as a compositional part that has its own integrity. And you can follow, on another level, just the relationship of myself to William. And then maybe you can listen to how we interact with the drummer and then you can listen to how David interacts with the rhythm section, or how we interact with him. Or at some point all that can disappear and it can be one mystic mass of sound. And I think maybe we are looking for -- I don't want to say a deeper level than how the music came together in the Sixties, but a different level. I think I've just covered a lot of things in a different way.

PSF: You were talking about how you basically know where you're going; you have that safety net. Where, on the other hand, Coltrane often sounds like he's looking for himself.

And I think in his, quote, "avant-garde" work he is.

PSF: With you guys there's more of a sense that you know who you are and you're comfortable with that and you're sort of just vibrating within that, and that's a very different thing.

Yeah, and that's extremely accurate. And that is very different.

PSF: How would you relate your music to Monk? Was he an influence on you?

Well, yes, yes, he is. I, first of all, as a pianist, I see myself coming out of the Duke Ellington pyramid of piano playing, which Monk comes out of. If you look at that pyramid, you're basically dealing with Duke Ellington at the top of the pyramid, then you're dealing with Monk, and then from there you're dealing with many extremities. This is the genius of Duke Ellington, too, that you can look at one person -- let's look at three people, post-Duke Ellington, post-Monk, who can look back to that pyramid as influences: Mal Waldron, Randy Weston and Cecil Taylor. They're all of the same generation and all three come out of the same pyramid. Yet you couldn't find three more distinct, different musical personalities; they're completely different. That's to me a real testament to Duke Ellington and Monk, that they can engender such vast responses to their style. I think if you look after Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor and Mal Waldron, to the next generation, I see myself coming out of the next part of that pyramid. That's specifically the Duke Ellington pyramid, which Monk comes out of, so that's how I see myself related to Monk -- through Duke Ellington, who's a big influence on my piano playing. The second way I see myself related to Monk is that he's kind of the father of the iconoclastic, "fuck the world" school of piano playing (laughs), which is what I fit in, the iconoclastic mode of developing your own music and not really giving a fuck what the world thinks about it. You develop your own mode of playing. Your personality as a pianist and a composer are interlinked in your whole way of existentially approaching the world. I develop my music and my own style, and fuck you -- you either take it or you don't. And if you don't, I'll wait. So I call that the "fuck the world," iconoclastic mode of piano playing. That's a specific response, a specific stance you take toward the world. And the idea of developing your own music -- that's the school of piano playing I come out of. And that's the other way Monk has influenced me.

PSF: There's one thing I would add, which is that Monk's the pianist credited for pioneering that percussive style.

Well, I think Duke Ellington did. Everything's implied there. A lot of people take aspects of it and build it into a whole universe, but he implied it. Everything is in potential in his music, even though it could be one second of something.

PSF: "Koko" (RCA, 1940) is an example of what you're saying. Supposedly, the first time Duke heard a Monk record, his response was, "Who's that cat knicking my stuff?"

The Monk thing is a great story; it can't be denied -- the whole narrative to his career, narrative to his piano playing, narrative to his career development; it works all together in a beautiful way. You often wonder where the energy for someone to make the decisions that they make comes from. And in a case like that, you know, the whole world was against him, more or less. I mean, this cat developed that style of playing, and like any musician, you come out like, "Bam! I got this," and you play it. And the industry and the world is like, "No." And for somebody to be told "no" and then just to continue to do it in utter disregard for what the world and the industry think is an amazing thing. It's amazing that somebody has whatever that is that allows them to do that. I mean, I don't know what you call that. You could it persistence, you can call it narcissism, you could call it genius, you could call it -- just like they're not even aware.

PSF: They're just oblivious to it.

Yeah, they're just oblivious and driven by that particular muse. But it's a pretty amazing thing.

PSF: Right. Though the other thing he had going for him was that he had all these tunes people wanted to play. So in that sense people had to deal with him --

Well, they didn't deal with him for a long time.

PSF: Yeah, but you had people who wanted to play his tunes and that got his name out whether or not people liked his playing.

Right. Well, there was always a school of musicians that knew he was happening.

PSF: Sure. He was in the middle of all the bebop -- I don't personally consider him a bebop player --

No, he's not. He's his own world.

PSF: But he was part of that crowd: Charlie Parker and Diz and all those guys. Now, it's interesting to trace this, because I would never think to mention Bud Powell in connection to you --

Oh, Bud Powell's probably the biggest influence on my piano playing.

PSF: See, I've heard you say that and that makes me curious. Because I don't hear that.

Well, I think one thing about my playing is that I'm hypersensitive about phrasing and line. That's what's interesting, because people who can't hear my playing, when you get down to it, they can't hear the progressions of how I linearly build things -- if I really analyze what they can't hear. And I can imagine that to somebody that can't hear it, it would sound like gobbledygook, like nothingness. But if you can get into it, basically my playing is all linear and there are certain melodic ideas. And what's actually original about my playing is that my actual sense of phrasing in my lines is completely unprecedented. I will say that without hesitancy. But if you get down to the genesis of my concept about what jazz piano playing is, it's a certain idea of line. And on the piano, I think, the progenitor of the concepts of pure line that I abstract off of is Bud Powell. I mean, to me, it's there; I hear it. I know what I actually go for in my mind. And it's not a literal thing; it's not like the actual lines he played. But I think it's a coloristic thing he gets on the piano that's based on line and the propulsion behind the line. And in my playing, even at its densest, I really do think like a bebop player, which is integrity of line.

PSF: I can sort of hear it when you're playing with predominantly the right hand and you're playing a very straight melodic line, and then you'll go off into some really dense chords, and to me, if there's a break [between you and Powell], that's where the break is. I can see that in relation to Monk, but do you consider that as coming out of Bud Powell as well?

Yeah. I mean, to me, in developing a concept of what jazz piano is, what is the essence of jazz piano, it's basically four people I look to: Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, in one breadth, and then in the other breadth is that universe between Monk and Bud Powell. That's in coming to some abstract definition of what is the essence of jazz piano. That means something to me, though whether the listener gets that is not important. That's something that means something to me.

PSF: One fairly obvious observation I can make that's true of you and Duke, and also if you have anything in common at all with Cecil, it's that you guys really play the whole piano. Somebody on an Internet group said, "nobody plays the bass end of the piano like Matt does," and that is sort of a given to me as well.

They didn't mean that reductively, did they?

PSF: No, it was something they found exciting within in your music and I agree. It's a very dense sound but it's not a muddy sound. I think that, well, calling it percussive, I think, would be sort of a cop-out, because it's not just percussive. When I was getting into Monk, I heard a lot of people saying he had a percussive piano style, and I heard people as saying that in a negative way. Maybe not everyone does, but I heard that as a way of writing it off. You know, he goes 'plunk' with two dissonant notes and people say, "Well, it's percussive." But on the other hand, to me it's kind of like saying, "I don't want to deal with the notes." Whether he's playing a D and an E, or even an E and an E-flat --

Oh, definitely, there's note choice involved. I have an aunt who doesn't like Monk at all and that's better than what she says.

PSF: Should I even ask?

(Laughs) She says, "Erroll Garner can play the piano. That Monk, that boy should not play the piano. That's not music; it's noise." An aunt of mine says that about Monk, so (laughs) that's one take. I think the bottom line is that the whole gestural realm that you're looking at right now, the whole idea of somebody like Monk, that music by its nature is confrontational. Now, if you actually get into the language, it's not; it's the language. I mean, you can deal with it mathematically. If a major or minor second works for you in the context of this measure and he made a specific note choice and is doing it with a certain type of touch and playing to get a specific thing, that's the language being employed at that period. What I was pointing out earlier about the iconoclastic mode, that specific mode of language, there is an element of it that it is punk -- that is confrontational. That's just a part of the language of jazz -- at a certain point. I mean, on one level, at a certain time, the language was part of dance music, period. You know, on another level it enters a whole different realm of society, of sociology, and then at times, it does have a confrontational element to it. That's meant to be that way. Whether on the part of the performer, consciously, or not.

PSF: Is that one of the things that you think attracts somebody like a Henry Rollins?

I think jazz by its nature, from bebop on, is an underground language with a very similar gestural genesis to punk. Obviously, it's a completely different music and even the sociology behind it is different, but I'm just talking about the genesis of the gesture of maybe why certain people are creating this. Yeah, there's definitely similarities to punk. And that's what's so interesting about Jazz at Lincoln Center or something like that, where the obvious gesture is completely different. I mean, the gesture there behind it is to take jazz and to give it credibility like classical music has credibility. You know, you can get "old" type Caucasian money to sponsor it and put it in a nice place, and have all the trappings, so the people that buy subscriptions to symphony orchestras will consider it valid and come out to hear it, like they're going to hear Zubin Mehta or something. That's a diametrically opposed gesture than what Monk and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell were doing at Minton's. (Laughs) You know, diametrically opposed. What's so interesting about Jazz at Lincoln Center is they can actually present old music now that might have had gestures similar to punk when it was originated, but now they're doing it in tuxedos, being sponsored by old Caucasian money, trying to give it credibility, when what makes jazz great is that when it was done, it wasn't "credible." I mean, that's what MAKES it credible. What makes bebop legitimate is the fact that when it was done, it was illegitimate.

PSF: I'll play Devil Advocate's for a minute -- and you said bebop, so I'm changing the rules a bit: What would you say about someone like Ellington bringing his music to the concert hall and writing "Black, Brown and Beige"?

Oh, no, no. First of all, the only reason I'm talking about jazz having a punk aesthetic from bebop on is because I'm actually not that knowledgeable about pre-bebop [jazz] from a sociological standpoint. I mean, I know a lot of his music, but from bebop on, I kind of have a grasp of what was happening. And when I think of earlier jazz, I really think of it in terms of dance music and stuff like that. Now, when you say that, Ellington was somebody who played with a dance band. I mean, he got his start in little society bands around Washington, DC. And, you know, the basic goal was to play dance performances and get pussy. You play, you get paid and you get pussy after the gig. (Laughs) When he started out, he talks about having a girl sitting at his left and right. When I think of that, I think of it all in the same context as I think of somebody playing in a cover band today or at a wedding or something. When he tried to do extended compositions and go into a whole other social realm, he was still a workaday musician, playing dance concerts every night. When I think of that, the way I structure the way I think about doing that, is as an Afro-American, just wanting to get credibility in another sector of society. In his mind he knows he's creating great music in a dance context, but he wants white people to say that he's doing something valid. And a black person at that time would have had, psychologically, a need to have credibility in a white man's world. Whereas, I would like to think people of my generation -- just because of certain things my parents have gone through, their parents have gone through, I don't really feel the need to get credibility from whites apart from being myself. We were talking about that earlier with Braxton. I was talking about the need for documentation -- just the fact that he's of a generation of my father and people, it's just a whole different head-space. My father, for instance, has a Ph.D. that he got after he retired from his first job. And I don't mean this in a bad way; he got it because he went into a different career after that -- he actually needed it for his new career. But on another level, there's also the need in his generation to have credibility in the eyes of Caucasians, by saying, "I'm well educated." Whereas, in my situation, I dropped out of college -- I don't give a fuck. (Laughs) I mean, I don't have a college degree and I don't want a college degree. (Laughs)

PSF: What good would it do you?

Yeah, that's what I'm saying. And even credibility-wise to me, it means nothing. And also, in my dealings with Caucasians, you know, I could look at you and you could have a Ph.D., and you could ask me what college I went to, whereas somebody from my father's generation, it really means something to be able to say, "I went to Yale," or whatever. Or even a generation past my father, to some of them -- to me, that shit's meaningless. It's meaningless. So what I'm saying is, back with Duke Ellington, there was a need to get credibility in another strata of society. About Parker and Monk, I don't know what was going through their heads, but I can actually imagine as young men, to them there was kind of a disconnect maybe between someone of Duke Ellington's generation and how somebody of that generation saw the world, and maybe some of the forces [they had to] -- I don't want to say kiss up to -- but deal with in their way, whatever way they had to deal with it. I can imagine the energy behind [them] -- because obviously somebody like Monk or Bud Powell was out there, you know. They took pretty radical stands that were at odds [with society]. I can imagine that they might have seen the way somebody like Duke Ellington or someone of his generation kind of had been victims of certain ways of trying to get credibility within white society. I can imagine that their aesthetic could have been a "fuck you" to them -- a "fuck you" to Duke Ellington and people like that, too, on some level. I'm not saying that dogmatically; I'm saying I could see that possibility.

See Part 4 of 4 of our Matthew Shipp interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER